A sane distance: trauma, tragedy, and the reporter

by Ethan Baron

I had a dream about Willie Pickton the night after he was sentenced to life in prison. I’d already had nightmares after gruesome days in court, but this dream was different. I was in a room with Willie and another man. The other guy and I were spending the night in the room, and we were supposed to make sure Willie behaved himself. I remember, in this dream, thinking about what might happen if I fell asleep. I could feel, in my mind, Willie’s weird monkey fingers closing around my throat. Then I woke up.

What interests me about this dream is that no matter what disturbing things I’ve seen and heard on the job, I feel stable and mentally healthy. I constantly stay aware of my emotional and physical reactions to my work. I pay close attention to my thoughts and responses. At the same time, I don’t have a really good idea about what’s going on deep below the surface.

Running by the ocean this week on a gravel path, I happened to be thinking about going back to Afghanistan in November. I was making mental preparations for responding to hostile situations when I heard someone running up really fast behind me. I had this instinctive reaction to smash them as hard as I could, but, as I turned my head, I saw it was a woman who had run up behind me to get around a puddle.

The Pickton trial and the war in Afghanistan illustrate the parallels between metro news reporting and covering hazardous situations. Clearly, work in conflict and disaster zones carries greater risks to your physical body. But while you’re less likely to die on the job covering metro news, there’s no shortage of horribly violent things happening to people in Canada, and most metro reporters will end up covering those situations at some point.  
Journalists, cops and soldiers all say that witnessing the emotional trauma of grieving people is more unsettling and upsetting than seeing the victims of violent death. Yet, as a metro reporter, if you’re going to do the job well, you need to walk up to those grieving people and get the story of their loss and try to learn more about the victim. You can approach this challenge in one of two ways.

You can close yourself off to the sadness and the grotesqueness and, to a large extent, prevent yourself from having an emotional reaction, or you can open yourself up and feel everything. I believe the more you expose yourself the better story you’ll tell.  But opening yourself up can take you on an emotional roller coaster.

At the end of the Pickton trial, when the prosecutor was reading the victim impact statements, I cried for the first time in 15 years of journalism. And while other people’s trauma can be hard to take, there’s no comparison between reporting on someone’s tragedy and experiencing tragedy yourself. It’s important to keep things in a relative perspective.    

Yet covering trauma and tragedy can take a toll. Pay attention to what’s going on in your head. Know that certain situations will be more difficult for you personally to handle. The better you understand how you respond to difficult and dangerous situations, the better you’re able to see where to set the lines. Take time off when you need it.  It can be hard to set boundaries for yourself when you’re pursuing a story, but you must to protect your emotional well being.